A Frozen Dead Girl & The Condors Of Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa, in the south of Peru, is at an altitude a fair deal lower than Cusco, sitting at 2,300 metres above sea level – but that’s still high, especially for a coastal gal like me. Dave and I arrive in the elevated city early in the morning, having been on a twelve-hour bus journey, but unfortunately we’re unable to check in to our hostel early today. Both of us are groggy and tired despite having slept fairly well on the bus, so our main goals are to get some breakfast and relax in the hostel before doing anything else. Similarly to Cusco, Arequipa is full of sloping hills, so even walking to the nearest supermarket requires all our efforts.
First impressions of the city are pretty good. The main square is a large, grand plaza, with a tree-filled park and lovely white architecture surrounding it. The terraced backroads are filled with taxis that honk to get our attention as they pass, hoping we need transportation somewhere. Luckily, our hostel is right in the centre of the downtown area, the most touristic and safest, so everything we need is within walking distance.
After finding cereal and some lunch items in a small but well stacked supermarket, we refuel our bodies and spend a couple of hours in the hostel dining area. The main reason for our visit to Arequipa is to see Colca Canyon, which other backpackers tell us is a must-do of the country. However, we’ve also heard about a museum that houses the body of a dead Inca girl, who was sacrificed five hundred years ago and has been pretty much been completely frozen in ice, on top of a mountain, until her discovery in 1995. So, after freshening up with a shower and change of clothes, we head out into the sunny twenty-six degree heat to find her.
The Mummy of an Incan Girl
The name of the frozen girl is Juanita, after the archeologist who found her, called Johan. The tour of the museum starts with an informative video, describing how Juanita was one of many children offered to the Gods, known as Pachamama, along with artefacts and valuable items. Next, we’re taken through to the dimly lit museum and shown the items that were buried with the children, consisting mainly of clothing and pottery that is held in glass cases for security. They save the best for last of course, and eventually we reach the body of Juanita herself, encased in a strong, large glass box that acts as a freezer and preserves her body. It is a bizarre sight to witness.
Juanita retains all of her dark black hair and her arms are very clearly hydrated as they still have skin like yours and mine. She is wrapped in a foetal position and covered by a cloak so the rest of her body is hidden, but her face is on show and this is the only part that has received any damage.
Due to a landslide, Juanita was not found in her original grave and for a short period of time her face must have been exposed to sunlight, so the skin on this part of her is much less preserved, although her teeth remain intact. We aren’t allowed to take any of our belongings into the museum, so I’m unable to share any photographs of Juanita with you, but just type her name in to Google and you’ll see plenty of fascinating images!
After a couple of hours we reemerge into the sunshine, still processing the fact that we’ve just seen a dead body. There’s just enough time to make our lunch back at the hostel, before joining a three-hour free walking tour of Arequipa, on which we visit churches, traditional Peruvian streets, a llama museum, a chocolate-making store and, of course, a bar where we finish with a Pisco Sour each. Following this we buy our dinner from the supermarket and cook in our hostel, getting an early night ready for our tour to Colca Canyon in the morning.
Day Tour to Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is located 100 miles from Arequipa and it takes around five hours to reach its beginning. This means we have to start the day tour very early, and our shuttle bus arrives to collect us from our hostel at 3am. Luckily it’s a comfortable bus so we’re able to nap en route.
We make a couple of stops on our journey, the first for a basic breakfast in a small village, and the second at the side of the road which overlooks the valley leading to Colca Canyon. Already the views are stunning and we grab a couple of photographs of the valley from above, as well as with indigenous ladies and their alpacas; an obvious but irresistible tourist trap.
When we arrive at the entrance point for Colca Canyon our tour guide pays the group entrance fee and we pile out of the shuttle bus for some free time exploring the canyon’s lookout points. Unfortunately, as we’re only on a day tour we do not go down into the canyon itself, but the view from the top is brilliant enough and we learn that Colca Canyon nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, in the USA!
The part of the canyon in the photos above is known as ‘Condor Cross’ as it’s a sanctuary where the Andean Condor can be seen on its migration path. We’ve arrived in low season and so don’t expect to see any condors for this reason, but in the last five minutes before re-boarding our bus I hear the unmistakable cry of another tourist screaming, “Condor!”. Dave and I rush over to the side of the canyon, joining a quickly growing crowd, and we’re rewarded with the sight of a single, lone condor swooping high up above the red rock. It’s too far to get a decent picture, but even from this distance you can see the huge wingspan of the largest flying land bird in the world. Our visit to the Colca Canyon is officially a success.
Next on the agenda is a stop at what was sold to us as ‘natural hot springs’. This turns out to be effectively a manmade swimming pool filled with natural warm water, not quite the vision we had in mind but a nice break nonetheless.
Following the swim stop we drive to another lookout point, but this one is to view two of the closest volcanoes to Arequipa; Ampato and Sambayaca. Volcan Ampato also happens to be the mountain that Mummy Juanita was discovered on. The lookout stop is 4,800 metres above sea level and absolutely freezing cold, so we only jump out to take a picture then rush back to the warmth of our vehicle.
Before we know it we are on our way back to the hostel, with just one more pitstop at a national park to spot vicuñas grazing by the roadside.
It’s been a long but satisfying day and by the time we return to our dorm we want nothing but to eat and sleep. We’re heading to Puno tomorrow where we’ll visit the floating Uros Islands, before crossing overland into Bolivia. Time is fast-escaping us so we’re having to get tactical about how we spend the remainder of our days in South America.
For updates on our route and the things we enjoy, or don’t enjoy, in South America, just enter your email below and subscribe today!